By Robert A. Vella

I hear it everyday.  People all over the world are expressing shock and disbelief over the rise of dangerous political extremism, especially the far-right variety, in the U.S., across Europe, and now even in Brazil.  That so many people still don’t understand, or simply cannot accept, the fundamental reasons why this is happening may be the biggest problem of all – for this collective ignorance and denial provides the social cover necessary for extremist movements to flourish.

If you’re looking for overly-simplistic answers (e.g. good versus evil) which can conform to your particular worldview, then you’ll be disappointed with this post.  If you are committed to the cold, hard truth, then this post provides some resources and perspectives which might be helpful.  Although I’ve been discussing the issue of rising political populism and extremism on this blog for several years, I’ll try to keep my personal opinions to a minimum and let other more qualified individuals, or their works, speak for themselves.

One of the misconceptions many people have is the assumption that we humans are generally rational beings.  Therefore, destructive and/or hostile acts committed by others must be attributed to malice aforethought.  Another misconception is the assumption that society is merely the sum of, and a reflection of, its generally rational population.  However, irrationality is not just an aberration.  It is not only common, it is also part of who we are as human beings.  Furthermore, the dynamics of society are far more complex than simply the sum of its constituent human parts.  Sociologists know this, and that’s why an entire field of study has been devoted to the subject.  The term psychosocial defines the effect of social environment on the mental and physical health of people.

One such sociologist was Erich Fromm (1900-1980) who analyzed the social breakdown in Interbellum Germany which gave rise to Nazism.  In his illuminating 1941 book Escape from Freedom, Fromm addresses the irrational anxieties present in human nature, the basic fear of freedom and democracy, and how these manifest in a primal desire for authoritarian social order.  Conversely, democratic freedom is strictly an intellectual appeal which proves to be quite fragile in the face of social grievance and hardship be it real or imagined.

Here’s a concise review of the book by Holt McDougal:

If humanity cannot live with the dangers and responsibilities inherent in freedom, it will probably turn to authoritarianism. This is the central idea of Escape from Freedom, a landmark work by one of the most distinguished thinkers of our time, and a book that is as timely now as when first published in 1941. Few books have thrown such light upon the forces that shape modern society or penetrated so deeply into the causes of authoritarian systems. If the rise of democracy set some people free, at the same time it gave birth to a society in which the individual feels alienated and dehumanized. Using the insights of psychoanalysis as probing agents, Fromm’s work analyzes the illness of contemporary civilization as witnessed by its willingness to submit to totalitarian rule.

See:  Mechanisms of Escape from Freedom – These are passages from Chapter V of Fear from Freedom. Fromm explores and presents the psychological and social mechanisms that lead an individual to be afraid of freedom and to prefer to give it up. They appear as the tendency to be led by a “superior” power and/or to behave like a social automaton conforming to a role assigned to him by others or by circumstances. And there is also the drive to destructiveness (towards others or towards himself) when the feeling of powerlessness is overwhelming. In all those cases freedom to conduct his/her own personal and social life is nowhere to be seen.

It is this premise, so astutely conveyed by Fromm, which I’ve repeatedly asserted as having been ignored by the world’s post-WWII centrist establishment.  Democracy and freedom are innately fragile constructs which must be constantly reinforced in the culture.  That they were taken for granted so arrogantly is the main reason why they’re failing today.

Now, let’s move onto the current fallout from this terrible failure as it relates to America – that is, the exploitation of latent xenophobia, bigotry, and racism by President Donald Trump.

For a long time in modern American history, it was unacceptable for the news media to portray politicians as either racist or as serving racist interests (a notable exception was George Wallace who openly admitted it).  If politicians adamantly denied such portrayals, journalists who “went there” – no matter how accurately they did so – risked jeopardizing their professional careers.  Today, however, that is no longer the case.  President Trump is so blatant in his support for white nationalism (i.e. white supremacy), and so blatant in his condemnation of the targets of white nationalism (i.e. immigrants, refugees, ethnic and religious minorities), that journalists and commentators are “going there” with increasing frequency.

I urge you to watch these two video segments featuring former Republican strategist Steve Schmidt and former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough who both came down on Trump harder than I’ve ever seen so far.  Their reactions came in response to Trump’s rhetoric following the recent arrests of the mail bomb suspect in Florida (Cesar Sayoc, domestic terrorism) and the mass shooting suspect at a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh (Robert Bowers, hate crimes).

Steve Schmidt: Trump is stoking and inciting the worst among us

Morning Joe: Scapegoating plays to fears ahead of midterms

Further reading:

Steve Schmidt: Trump Acting Like A “Tribal Chieftain,” Not Commander-in-Chief

‘Nazis are here again’: He hid in a storeroom during Tree of Life shooting. Now, he feels unsafe in home

How Trump-Fed Conspiracies About Migrant Caravan Intersect With Deadly Hatred

Kellyanne Conway suggested that recent hate crimes are related to anti-religiosity. But they aren’t.

44 thoughts on “Why this is happening (the rise of political populism and extremism)

  1. While most of us can’t help but agree, the question becomes … how do we deal with it? Sounding off helps … voting helps IF our selections come to pass … but what else (short of seeking a witch to cast a spell on DT)?

    Liked by 2 people

    • In my personal opinion:

      First of all, the public needs to be educated about the social anxieties they might be feeling, how to interpret them, and how to resolve them in a constructive manner. Ideally, all social institutions should universally condemn ethnic and racial hatred, and such a moral statement should be made public policy.

      Secondly, the public needs to be educated about the nature of democracy versus authoritarianism, as well as why the former is preferable to the latter.

      Thirdly, children must be taught civics as early in their development as possible, and taught politics and rhetoric no later than high school. Voting should be made compulsory.

      I could go on and on, but you get the picture. If we don’t have an informed and engaged electorate, then nothing else we can do will matter. Unfortunately, such a comprehensive remedy would require broad commitment and much time – two commodities we are sorely lacking now.

      Liked by 6 people

      • I agree with you, but I then must ask … how would/could we implement educating the public? I agree with starting early (teaching children), but we have an entire populace of adults. How do we change their thinking? Is it even possible when it comes to racism and bigotry?

        Liked by 3 people

        • We can’t eradicate bigotry and racism, but we can push it back into latency. Are there any practical ways to educate the public? Yes, but the right-wing would never allow us to utilize the most proper and effective institution – i.e. the public school system. So, I would instead call on the liberal donor class to start spending their wealth on another effective institution – i.e. the media. If the far-right can have Fox News and Sinclair Broadcasting, why can’t we do something similar?

          Liked by 2 people

      • On this I completely agree with you. Proper education has been known as they key to a free society since antiquity. However, around the world there’s a war against education, illustrated by the rise of creationism, continuous budget cuts and the narrow focus on the economic value of education.

        Liked by 3 people

        • Indeed. Those policy trends you cited are all part of conservative ideology and its political agenda (and partly neoliberal too). That’s precisely what I inferred with my point about the complexity of social dynamics being greater than simply the sum of the population.

          Liked by 2 people

  2. I’m so tired of trump and his cult! I just want them to go away! How is this ever going to reverse? How will the US ever be normal again? I’m afraid this will continue and we are going to become like Brazil or Germany pre WWII.
    How do you deal with something when almost half the country supports trump and his agenda.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Trump has two more years in office. Then a good shot at another four years. Don’t see anything from the democrats.m, but they have a while to come up with someone. It is beginning to look like Hillary will run again. Not good news for anyone.
    But the political problems are nothing in comparison to the problems resulting from climate change.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. By accident of circumstance (and family) I was essentially born to two dictatorships. The one that was winding up in Spain and another which was alive and well in Brazil.
    The hierarchical structure is so ingrained in people’s minds, many don’t really see (or perhaps even understand) the benefits of democracy. From there to being willing to manipulate the masses, it’s a very short road.

    Liked by 2 people

      • They were/are part of the system. In Latin America essentially landowners control politics. Even when it seems like they don’t, they still do in one way or another. My family believes that model is the way of the world. That they’re “entitled” to their place in society. That you marry amongst your own class. That paternalism is good for society. From what I understand there was a marked black/white divide in the last election in Brazil. With medium and light browns siding with the whites in hopes of being lumped together 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        • Interesting. My mother was also a proponent of that social hierarchy culture. Obviously, Bolsonaro was able to exploit that social anxiety over racial identity in Brazil just as Trump was able to in America. Very sad…

          Liked by 1 person

        • Paternalism? Our elites don’t even believe in noblesse oblige. It would be nice to see a little paternalism from the oil barons, software nerds, and spreadsheet diddlers, but they feel absolutely no duty to society as a whole. They all fantasize about Going Galt…or turning the entire country into a dystopian Galt’s Gulch..

          Liked by 2 people

        • If you look closely the current elites in America have simply recycled old fashioned paternalism in the form of “charity”. From the Gates foundation to Zuckerberg’s African projects. Plato would be proud 😉

          Liked by 1 person

  5. Rahim Taghizadegan talks about some of the biological priming for populations where Western culture is dominant that sets the stage for authoritarian rule in terms of evolution and fitness, and why Western democracies are so susceptible to this impulse. I agree we as a democratic population need to be vigilant if we wish to remain free of authoritarian rule and challenge it whenever we see its rise in whatever form it takes. Calling for more ‘education’ as if this were a solution is a palaver when the battle today is very much over what is and is not being taught. What is not being taught are the necessary foundation principles of Western liberal democracy to be held as public virtues; rather, what is being taught is that these foundation principles are themselves personal vices that privilege, victimize and oppress. That’s a recipe far too many people are following that leads directly to authoritarian rule.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I often agree with you tiledb at Maka’s place, but as much as I share your skepticism about the more…hysterical…aspects of identity politics, I really don’t think you are identifying the problem accurately. Few (with any real influence) on the social justice (SJ) left are really arguing that foundational principles are the issue. Just how they are applied. I also think you oversell the power of the SJ left in this country. They have cultural power, but even there there are strong counter cultural trends (fundamentalist Protestantism)

      Liked by 1 person

      • The biological aspect I thought interesting was adapting obedience as an element of fitness because of the distribution of cultural practices where the family unit has decentralized power over smaller holdings while sharing with the landowners the commons that included watermills… again a decentralized practice for over a millennia, that larger families benefiting themselves had more success providing for the larger population (which in turn was necessary for the landowning class) than smaller or even individuals. The point was that the following of beneficial social rules – meaning maintaining this balance – favoured obedience to maintaining these rules, whereas today we’re rapidly moving away from the model. The comparison is made with other cultures that had significantly different cultural rules and classes not based on individual holdings and personal advancement (especially differences in practice of young men and the marriage rules) where obedience is much more family and tribe centered than typically found in ‘Western’ cultures. Anyway, thought this was interesting because I’d never heard of this.

        As for correctly identifying the problem causing the rise of the Trumpians, I think populism vs liberal values needs to be further explored and understood because people really are turning away from fundamental principles (like the confusion between on the one hand saying one supports free speech but on the other also advocating for stricter controls over its presentation, like the confusion of saying one supports diversity on the one hand while advocating for equity in results on the other) and voting for populists/strongmen. I don’t think general anxiety explains it very well. But, hey, maybe it does. I honestly don’t know but what I do know is that few people and even fewer people who identify as being Left seem dedicated to maintaining fundamental values when push comes to shove. And I also know of the rise of vilification of all things Western in the Academy where you will be hard pressed to find one in 20 who are not either self identified Left or even more extreme on this end of the political spectrum. And I also know the level of tolerance for anything right of those new defaults is rapidly vanishing from those assumed defaults in media, universities, and public education, and now large institutions both public and private. Voting for Trumpians seems more in line by what I’m reading and seeing as an emotional push back against this wave of correctness.


        • “saying one supports free speech but on the other also advocating for stricter controls over its presentation” –
          That’s a false dilemma because the answer doesn’t have to be black or white. The Western European definition of free speech, for example, doesn’t allow for the dissemination of false information. People are liable for what they say especially when the lives of fellow citizens are at play. If I accused you of harming children without evidence you’d be able to rightfully take me to court and win.
          It’s possible to support principles without supporting the abuse of those principles.

          Liked by 2 people

  6. Great post Robert. My only comment would be about Holt’s assertion why we might rely on authoritarianism. Actually not so much a disagreement perhaps, but more nuance to the point. I mean aren’t we sort of born into authoritarianism. Our parents. The first people to be part of our lives are people who are older than us and just by the sheer fact of being around longer know more than us. We thus rely on authority at the very beginning. I suppose one could argue that as pre-conscious beings and early conscious beings we are not capable of handling the uncertainty and freedom that we could have in the world, and it would be of course evolutionarily unwise for us to do. I think there is also a reason why teenagers are generally rebellious towards authority. I think this is where socialized systems come to play where we are led to believe that those rebellious attitudes are disrespectful, overconfident, and at worst indications of some sort of evil inside of us for not being respectful to authority. Those teenage years are where we are most likely to take risks, we are probably also most likely to fail, but it is that failure that teaches. We are also most likely to think out of the box and have the ability to exercise that freedom. I think the uncertainty can be weathered if “authority” normalizes uncertainty (having experienced it themselves) and sees it as an important part of growth.

    I agree that on some fundamental level uncertainty is hard for us to cope with, and that for different people they are just going to be more or less equipped to deal with uncertainty, for a variety of reasons ranging from genetic to many different environmental factors. What’s not clear to me though is why is this moment in history filled with more uncertainty as to account for what seems like a step back from progress. There are many reasons to believe that we have far less to fear than we ever did before. We are capable and have cooperated before on scales larger than history has ever seen. While there are still problems we face, so have we always faced problems, and we are on average safer and healthier than at any time in human history. It seems that to warrant this regression, there has to be some other environmental factor creating this high level of uncertainty to default into authoritarianism.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, Swarn Gill. Those are all excellent points. We are born under authority. It is an important part of our basic psychology. Your citing of rebellious teenagers is also quite illustrative.

      We must understand that this particular moment in history is unique. Civilization has never been this complex and fraught with existential crises. Populations have always struggled with change, and there are more changes happening now than ever – from globalization (e.g. migration) to the technological revolution in communication (e.g. social media). All this creates anxiety, and it is this social anxiety which is triggering a backlash towards authoritarianism.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I guess I’m not enough of a historian to know whether existential crises in this day and age or worse than what we’ve faced before, but I do at least anecdotally feel you are correct there. The rate of technological advancement has certainly accelerated over the course of human history and that may indeed lead to quite a lot of stress. But there are also a lot arguments to be made that things aren’t as bad and uncertain as they are being made out to be, even with the rapid technological advancement. I feel like the panic is something that has been manifested by those interested in keeping people divided over united. That’s as far as my conspiracy thinking will take me. lol But when you look at the fear mongering in this country alone, it’s clear that there is little factual discussion taking place about what represent actual risks to your future and what does not. It seems also true that we could choose better authorities than we are choosing. Why not choose someone with experience or expertise in a particular arena to be that authority. Even if we could argue that blind allegiance to authority is never a good thing there are still better and worse authorities to choose.

        Liked by 2 people

        • But there are also a lot arguments to be made that things aren’t as bad and uncertain as they are being made out to be, even with the rapid technological advancement.

          You are absolutely correct, and I recall Pink making a similar argument recently on his blog about the living standards in Brazil being far better now than a few decades ago. However, this argument ignores Fromm’s point about the irrationality of anxiety. People typically don’t contemplate over the historical evidence of relative living standards. Instead, they react intuitively, instinctively, and emotionally to the moment. They live in the here and now. When a blue-collar worker with a limited education loses their job because their employer moved its production operation overseas, they are likely to feel great anxiety and then anger. That anger will naturally seek an outlet which can be exploited by political interests. Likewise, when ethnically and culturally isolated people come into close contact with outsiders, a similar dynamic can take place. They might feel anxious and perhaps threatened by this “intrusion” into their usual lifestyle; and, again, such primal emotions are easily exploitable by unscrupulous interests.


        • However, this argument ignores Fromm’s point about the irrationality of anxiety. People typically don’t contemplate over the historical evidence of relative living standards. Instead, they react intuitively, instinctively, and emotionally to the moment. They live in the here and now. When a blue-collar worker with a limited education loses their job because their employer moved its production operation overseas, they are likely to feel great anxiety and then anger.

          I completely agree with this. I guess what I’m saying though is that if your friend was angry about something, that he was misunderstanding you might explain the facts and this might make him less angry. Anger, anxiety, hate…these are things that are certainly open to reasons. That irrational initial reaction is certainly understandable, but authority (which might be you to your friend who doesn’t completely understand the situation) has the ability to choose to act in away to act on and exploit that fear and anxiety or try to restore equilibrium. We can blame the loss of coal jobs to China or environmental regulations, an give those anxious people somebody to blame, or we could be honest and say really it’s technological automation, and there is nobody to blame but just how capitalism works to maximize profits and increase efficiency, and so what we’re going to do instead is help you get re-educated so you are still productive in society. Thank you for your service. I guess all I’m trying to do is make the distinction between competent and incompetent authority. Or moral vs. immoral authority. I feel like authority today is exploiting over allaying people’s anxiety and fears, and that this is a conscious choice. I mean most politicians and people with a great deal of economic power and influence are extremely well educated and so it’s hard to believe they aren’t intentionally deceiving people instead of being as daft as they appear to be. But I guess the latter could be true..and most certainly is true in some cases.

          For me the moral responsibility relies on those who are already in position of privilege and power. Now that may be an unrealistic expectation given what power does to the brain, but there are at least some people who take the responsibility seriously. If you know you wield great influence and have already enjoyed the privilege of a good education at a top university you know that change, and rapid change is going to be uncomfortable for people and so to give people a strawman to worry about or blame and then claim to be the hero to knock it down is to me the bigger problem over people’s initial reaction to uncertainty.

          Sorry…I know I’m rambling a bit…I don’t really disagree with anything you’ve said, just expounding on things I think about a lot!

          Liked by 1 person

        • Unfortunately, there are few practical moral and ethical standards applicable to politicians, slightly more for bureaucrats, and ostensibly even more for judges (although, the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court seems to have disregarded such standards). Honestly, I don’t know what can be done about immorality or amorality. It’s a huge problem.

          Regarding the messaging which tells displaced workers that no one was to blame, that that’s just the way capitalism, business efficiency, and technological automation work… I can’t think of a worse thing to say to people who have suffered personal loss. It’s essentially telling them that their livelihood doesn’t matter, that their elected representatives won’t fight for them, and that they are on their own -so sorry. This was how Hillary’s message was perceived in the Rust Belt states of Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania – all formerly Blue states which Trump won in 2016. This was also how President Obama’s message was perceived during his second term when he lost on the passage of the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement. Politically, such messaging was an abject failure; and, I hope that any Democrat in the future who wanted to resurrect it would get slapped upside the head.

          Liked by 1 person

        • I agree with you, but just to be clear my comment about telling them there is no one to blame wasn’t necessarily how I would deliver the message. Only that there are honest answers to be given by authority that still can lead them towards something more hopeful. But perhaps it’s also true that we value that sometimes there is just bad news, there is no one to blame, and we just have figure out something else to do. Getting votes by propping up people on false hope isn’t any better for their long term survival, and arguably worse when if they had been told the truth they might have spent their energy in a more useful way than waiting for some politician to fix it all as they believe will happen. And let’s be honest many of us believed this about Obama in the same way. Again, I’m not saying that we couldn’t package the message better, but I don’t think dishonesty is the answer just because uncomfortable truths are harder to bear. I don’t think that’s your view necessarily, just postulating about what alternatives are in a particular situation that doesn’t just set people up for more misery and bigger disappointment.

          Liked by 1 person

        • I appreciate your larger point, but politics is a practical matter. Good strategy and tactics are imperative; otherwise, the door is left open for a destructive megalomaniac like Trump. Furthermore, I reject the neoliberal notion that capitalism in its present form is unalterable. I’m an FDR progressive who believes in economic management through democratic governance.

          Liked by 1 person

  7. “Bravo, Pink!”, says RA Vella.

    Really, Robert? You don’t see any problem with Pink’s reply to my point? You don’t see why his charge of me holding a false dilemma holds no truth value? Seriously? Wow.

    Here’s a clue… I never said I was in any way, shape, or form against libel laws. Are you beginning to tweak now? His entire response is predicated on just that.

    This is what Pink does. He misrepresents or creates a fiction (in this case) that other people who should know better, who should think better, are all too eager to go along with it, to allow this kind of dishonest tactic to go unchallenged.

    For crying out loud, stop following and start thinking. When legal free speech is censored (especially for ideological reasons about protecting victims), free speech is not being supported. That’s my point. Claiming that the censorship predicated on the supposed harm to vulnerable groups is necessary to maintain free speech is what I’m pointing out; it’s NOT upholding the principle but acting counter to it. It has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with dropping libel laws.

    Come on Robert. I shouldn’t have to make this kind of response.


  8. Pingback: A Case for Indictment, a must-see video on the Rise of Extremism, Facebook’s fake news, Butina pleads guilty | The Secular Jurist

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